In “The Yellow Handerchief,” director Udayan Prasad transposes an urban myth, first published in 1971 by Pete Hamill, to post-Katrina Louisiana, crafting a thoughtful, niche-oriented portrait of four off-the-beaten-path characters trying to find their way. As Hamill originally tells it, an ex-con hitches a ride with a group of teenagers to see the wife he left on the outside. Unsure of his standing after the long prison sentence, he has instructed her via postcard to hang a yellow handkerchief outside the house if she’ll have him back. He comes home to find 20, 30, maybe hundreds awaiting him. Better pack your hankies.
Actually, what sounds like just another weepy Reader’s Digest story (no surprise: the magazine actually reprinted Hamill’s article in 1972) takes on real gravitas in Prasad’s hands, fleshed out by its four-person cast. As Brett, the forlorn ex-con, William Hurt uses his eyes to project the soul his soft-spoken character hides from the world. One of the movie’s running themes suggests that faces often say more about a person than words, and apart from a few on-the-nose lines of dialogue, that philosophy puts the performances front and center.
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Brett hitches a ride with two complete strangers — Martine (Kristen Stewart), a heartbroken 15-year-old firefly of a girl flaunting her sexuality in hopes that someone will want her, and Gordy (Eddie Redmayne), an insecure young man convinced of his own abnormality — sensing in them a tentative dance of attraction.
Though he acts as their chaperone, whispering character-building words of encouragement on cue, Brett needs their company, too. Nearly anything he sees (a torrential rainstorm, a broken windowpane) triggers a textural flashback to May (Maria Bello), the fragile soul he left waiting for him. As the film progresses, he opens up to the kids, telling them his story, and the balance between past and present-day scenes shifts, revealing the reason for his incarceration (not nearly as heinous as we might imagine).
In making the story her own, screenwriter Erin Dignam shifts the attention from plot-forwarding actions to interactions, constructing poignant moments between the different characters. These life travelers aren’t necessarily eloquent, but they feel genuinely lived-in, frequently acting on impulse and barely-sublimated desire.
Though both Hurt and Stewart appeared in “Into the Wild” last year, here they’re given sufficient screentime to explore their enigmatic characters. And fresh face Redmayne embodies his redneck persona so convincingly, you’d never suspect the young Brit got his start playing Shakespeare.
Gator sightings and other glimpses of swamp life can’t be avoided in a pic like this, though Chris Menges’ evocative lensing captures the atmosphere without resorting to Terrence Malick-like environmental cutaways. Prasad takes his time with the material, capturing both the characters and their surroundings with real depth.